Arts & Culture

When fortune smiles

Vanna White and Pat Sajak, shown on location in Las Vegas, have been the show’s hosts since 1982.
Vanna White and Pat Sajak, shown on location in Las Vegas, have been the show’s hosts since 1982. PHOTO BY CAROL KAELSON

Once the cameras started rolling on the “Wheel of Fortune” set, Matt Arnold found himself inexplicably attached to the letter “L.”

“Every single puzzle, I asked for the letter ‘L,’ and every single puzzle was without the letter ‘L’,” said Arnold, who lives in San Luis Obispo. “When I got done with the taping, my wife said that when we’re sitting at home, I always choose the letter ‘N,’ and for some reason on the show I was choosing ‘L.’ ”

Of course, it’s no surprise that someone might freeze up a little on the set of “Wheel of Fortune.” After all, the show—which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year — is seen by millions. Hosts Pat Sajak and Vanna White are as recognizable to many Americans as neighbors or family members. And nothing seems to ramp up the nerves like a live audience.

“At home I tear it up,” said Arnold, who was on the show in 2005. “I can usually solve the puzzle at home when there’s three or four letters up there. But then get in front of an audience and all of a sudden things are different.”

With thousands of contestants through the years, “Wheel of Fortune” has consistently been one of the most accessible game shows — one that tours the country in search of players.

“With the exception of Montana and Wyoming, I think we’ve been to every state,” said Gary O’Brien, a contestant producer for the show.

Auditions are held regularly at the “Wheel of Fortune” headquarters in Culver City. But the Wheel Mobile also hits the road once or twice a month, seeking a cross-section of the country. Through the years San Luis Obispo County has been well represented, with at least a dozen contestants since 2002. (Doug Wilson, of Los Osos, who appeared on a show broadcast in December, was the latest.) During that time, the Arnold family actually had two appearances on the show—Matt and his mother, Linda.

It was Linda who heard the Wheel Mobile was stopping at a local car lot.

“I watch the show regularly, and I wasn’t working much at the time,” said Linda, of Los Osos. “So I just told my family to come with me.”

While the show needs hundreds of contestants a year, the competition is pretty fierce, O’Brien said.

“We need between 500 and 600 a year to play the show, so it’s going to take tens of thousands to get that number.”

During the audition process, O’Brien looks for personality and poise.

“We try to find people that we think can be terrific players in the studio,” he said. “We know people are great at home — when it’s always your turn and you’re always comfortable and relaxed. So we’re trying to find people who we think can be a successful contestant in a studio situation where there’s a lot of pressure on you.”

Since the 1980s, “Wheel of Fortune” — the longest syndicated game show in U.S. history — has been a staple of early evening entertainment. But it started out with slightly more humble beginnings. Chuck Woolery hosted the daytime version of the show on NBC beginning in 1975. After Woolery was fired in a salary dispute in 1981, L.A. weatherman Pat Sajak took over. A year later, Vanna White — once a contestant on “The Price is Right” —became the world’s most famous letter-turner.

Since the show became syndicated in 1983, “Wheel of Fortune” has awarded more than $185 million in cash and prizes.

After his appearance on the show in 2006, David Brewer, of San Luis Obispo, took home $2,000, a trip to Hawaii and a small slice of fame.

“Random people would be like, ‘Hey — I saw you on “Wheel of Fortune,” ’ ” he said.

Brewer was a student at Cal Poly when he auditioned for the show. Those auditions entail tests, interviews and a simulated game. For the game, the Wheel Mobile travels with a miniature wheel. (Not the one used on the show — it weighs 4,000 pounds.)

“We see how well they can keep the game moving along,” O’Brien said. “We see if they can stay focused and not re-use letters and call good letters and have a focused presence about them.”

Once on the show, producers like to take the edge off so contestants aren’t nervous.

“One way we try to overcome that is to get them to the studio early in the morning and get them out on stage as quickly as possible and actually spinning the wheel and loosening up and getting to know where to look.”

Matt Arnold remembers hanging out with the other contestants the day of the show.

“We didn’t try to talk to each other about ‘What’s your strategy or what do you think you’re going to do?’ ” he said. “We basically kept it to idle chit-chat to make it seem as normal as possible.”

There was never a sense of competition, he said.

“Even when you’re on the set, going up against the other two people, you’re generally happy for how they do,” he said.

During her trip, Linda Arnold remembers White popping in to introduce herself before the show.

“I was amazed at how tiny she was,” said Linda Arnold, who was on the show in 2006. “She came in before she had all her make-up on.”

While contestants go through practice rounds before appearing on camera, jitters can still result.

“Actually doing the show — for me, anyway—was actually very difficult,” Brewer said. “I was very nervous.”

No matter how much preparation goes into it, O’Brien said, they expect people will be a little thrown off.

“You’ve got a studio audience, and you’re on a show you’ve been watching all your life, and all of the sudden you’re thrown out there, and it’s sort of a surreal experience,” he said. “You’ve got Pat standing a few feet away from you, and there’s Vanna on the other side of the stage, not too far away.”

As a teacher for 25 years and a Hearst Castle guide for six (at that time), Linda Arnold figured she was used to being before crowds. Still, she found herself experiencing a little stage fright.

“I didn’t think there’d be that much of an intimidation factor,” said Linda Arnold, whose previous television experience occurred when she was in the peanut gallery of “The Howdy Doody Show” at age 5.

In the end, Matt Arnold fared better than his mother. She won $1,000; he got $4,000.

“We ended up getting replacement windows for our house,” he said.

Of course, once you’ve taped the show, it usually takes a few months before it actually airs. And with the broadcast comes another round of concern.

“I was nervous that I was going to come across like a dork,” Matt Arnold said.

Brewer had a large contingent of friends and family gather at Roundtable Pizza to watch his appearance.

“That was a little weird,” he said. “I’m not a big attention person.”

Still, like the Arnolds, he was pleased with his performance.

“I could tell I was a little nervous, but I solved two puzzles,” he said. “That was my biggest fear—not being able to solve the obvious puzzles.”

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